“They’re All Writers (And You Can Too)”
by Hank Wagner
When CD approached me about doing this piece on how-to writing books, I first asked, “Why?” Their response was “Why not? We’ll pay you.” After the quick dismissal of all that philosophical baggage, I then asked, “Are you sure you want someone who doesn’t write fiction?” Again, they soothed me: “That’s exactly what we want, just do a survey, and throw in a bit of opinion, and viola!” So, first understand that fact: I don’t write fiction, I write about fiction, and so read this type of book primarily for biographical info on the writers I enjoy, and then to see what I can learn about writing that might inform my reviews and interviews (ok, and maybe a little to see if I could actually do it some day, a temptation I’ve so far happily resisted—like Helen Holm of The World According to Garp, I seem to be a reader by inclination). That said, here comes the first pronouncement. It is my firmly held belief that:
YOU CAN’T LEARN TO WRITE BY READING A HOW-TO BOOK ON WRITING, YOU CAN ONLY LEARN WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR WRITING.
That’s the skinny, the unvarnished truth. Any published writer worth his or her salt will confirm this: it’s like diet pills, or get-rich-quick schemes, or playing Beethoven to your baby to insure he becomes a genius, and all that other mystical, magical, pseudo-scientific hogwash that we all instinctually long to believe in: nothing comes for free, especially publishable prose. Most agree that becoming a proficient writer comes only through hard work, determination, and, perhaps most important of all, persistence. No magic wands, no magic bullets, just good old, mundane, endurance.
So, how do you become a better writer?
I think, first , that, you need to be a voracious reader, better yet a critical reader, to be a good writer. So, read, read, read, and make it a point to read outside of the genre you wish to work in. Other people have been there before you, and the evidence rests in libraries and bookstores everywhere. Read to learn.
Then, instead of reading so-called how to books about writing, you’re probably better off first investing in a small reference library, which includes, but is not limited to, the following invaluable items:
WEBSTER’S UNABRIDGED DICTIONARY
THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by Strunk and White
THE COMPLETE WORKS OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
THE COLUMBIA HISTORY OF THE WORLD
OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY
THE DICTIONARY OF CULTURAL LITERACY
THE BOOK OF LISTS
THE HERO WITH A 1000 FACES
Once you have these basic tools of the trade, however, feel free to purchase all the writing books you desire, both as learning tools, and as cheap sources of inspiration. There are many, many books on the subject, many of them worthy. Well organized, certainly memorable, any or all of the following should help aspiring writers in their unending quest for guidance and reassurance:
ON WRITING, by Stephen King, worth the price of admission if only for his rant on adverbs and his sage advice about relying on Strunk and White’s little masterwork.
LESSONS FROM A LIFETIME OF WRITING: A NOVELIST LOOKS AT HIS CRAFT, by David Morrell, a very intimate, very informative, very engaging book.
A WRITER’S TALE, by Richard Laymon. Laymon tells it like it was, for him. Heartbreaking at times, but inspiring too.
THE COMPLETE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO WRITING A NOVEL, by Tom Monteleone. You’d have to be a complete idiot to ignore this book (ok, not the joke I really wanted to do, but Tom is a pretty formidable fellow).
WRITING POPULAR FICTION and HOW TO WRITE BEST SELLING FICTION, by Dean Koontz, both oldies, but goodies.
WRITING THE NOVEL, SPIDER SPIN ME A WEB, and TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT, by Lawrence Block. Block has likely forgotten more about writing than most writers will ever know.
WRITING HORROR, edited by Mort Castle, HOW TO WRITE TALES OF HORROR, FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, edited by J. N. Williamson, and ON WRITING HORROR: A HANDBOOK BY THE HORROR WRITER’S ASSOCIATION, all featuring articles from stars of the genre.
DARK DREAMERS and DARK THOUGHTS ON WRITNG, edited/compiled by Stanley Wiater. Books about writers.
UNDERSTANDING COMICS, by Scott McCloud. Yes, it’s about comics, but it’s also about storytelling.
ZEN AND THE ART OF WRITING, by Ray Bradbury. Hey, it’s Bradbury.
WRITING SHORT FICTION, by Damon Knight. Knight knows his way around the short form.
ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE and WHICH LIE DID I TELL: MORE ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE, by William Goldman. The titles say it all.
ON WRITING, by George V. Higgins, THE MERRY HEART and READING & WRITING, by Robertson Davies, and BIRD BY BIRD, by Francine Prose, because it’s my article, damn it.
But, you don’t have to rely on these obvious suspects. There are also other sources of wisdom about writing and the writing life from non- traditional sources. Some say, for instance, that Hemingway’s book, DEATH IN THE AFTERNOON, is really about writing, rather than bullfighting. I’ll leave it up to you to decide.
Paula Guran’s 2001 article “Tribal Stand,” available on the web at http://www.locusmag.com/2002/Commentary/Guran09_Standard.html tells a lot of truths about the horror genre and the writing profession, things that many people still don’t want, but need to, accept. Another source of wisdom about the writing life would be the numerous introductions and story notes that Harlan Ellison has penned over the years for his collections, which inarguably provide a wealth of information about one writer’s journey, and about the trials and tribulations and joys of pursuing the craft.
OK, we all long for simplicity, so let’s put up some lists. One fruitful source of practical wisdom about writing is Norm Partridge’s MR. FOX AND OTHER FERAL TALES, an outstanding collection featuring a lot of his fiction and nonfiction. Here’s a piece Partridge culled from that work for an article which originally appeared in the e-magazine Hellnotes back in October 2005. I’ve further whittled that summary down, without, I hope, diminishing its impact (Partridge’s preferred version can be found on his website, www.normanpartridge.com):
|10 TIPS FROM MR. FOX & MR. PARTRIDGE by Norman Partridge
1. YOUR WRITING IS YOUR BUSINESS: Whatever your chosen field of endeavor — whether you want to write screenplays, short stories, novels, or comic scripts — it’s wise to remember a point Jack London made a long time
2. KNOW YOUR MARKET: Become familiar with an editor’s product before you submit your work. Read his magazines or previous anthologies. Study his editorial guidelines. Understand the kinds of fiction he’s bought
3. NEVER WASTE AN EDITOR’S TIME: Most editors don’t have much of that particular commodity. If you want to do business as a writer, show editors that you know what being a pro is all about. Follow guidelines. Submit
4. DON’T WORK FOR FREE: Early on, I decided that submitting my fiction to markets that didn’t offer at least a token payment was a waste of my time.
5. MAKE YOUR WORK WORK FOR YOU: You need to learn to pick your shots. You need to learn to make those shots count. If you give away your best story to your buddy’s webzine before trying to sell it to a well-paying market with a high circulation because you’re too impatient to wait a few months for a professional editor’s reply, what good has that story really done you? If you “sell” a story to a POD anthology that pays in shared royalties (and that maybe twenty people will read), how has that advanced your career? If you spend a year writing a novel, and you cut a deal with the first small publisher who buys you a beer at a writer’s convention instead of working to find an agent who can represent your book or a publisher who will treat it as more than a cool hobby he can tinker with on weekends (unless it’s football season, that is)… well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
6. TOP MARKETS ARE A TOP PRIORITY: If you’re a newcomer submitting to top-drawer anthologies or magazines, you need to bear down, work hard, and get about as serious as a heart attack, because your story doesn’t just have to be as good as the submissions from the “name” writer you’re competing against, it has to be BETTER… and I’m talking better by a long shot, not by a hair.
7. REJECTION IS INEVITABLE: Simple fact of life — your stories will be rejected. When that happens, don’t feel sorry for yourself. Don’t give up. Toss that rejection in the waste basket. Pin it to your wall and use it for inspiration. File it in your filing cabinet and forget about it. But whatever you do, get back in there. Sit down at your desk. Turn on your computer. Get to work.
8. KEEP CLIMBING: Always have your eye on the next rung of the career ladder.
9. YOUR KEYBOARD IS BUILT FOR ONE: Some writers swear by the group method. They believe in workshopping a story. I don’t.
10. INSTANT GRATIFICATION IS NOT YOUR FRIEND: I’ll say it one more time–always start at the top when marketing your work. It’s a much harder road. I doubt you’ll find one bit of instant gratification on it. You’ll probably get more people grinding their heels into your ego than you would if you focused exclusively on the small press. But remember-the ultimate point of writing is communication. You’ve got to aim for a larger readership
A little more streamlined are Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, which although incorporated into a longer how-to book by Morrow in 2007 (titled, not surprisingly, ELMORE LEONARD’S 10 RULES OF WRITING), first appeared as a part of an article in the New York Times, titled “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.” They are, as paraphrased from that article:
|1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Leonard’s most important rule is one that sums up the preceding 10: if it sounds like writing, he rewrites it.
You can learn a lot from professors Partridge and Leonard, I think. I’d like to close this article, however, with two bits of profound wisdom I’ve picked up in my travels. The first is from Neil Gaiman, who, reflecting on the best
advice he ever got from a writer, wrote the following on his 4/22/08 blog:
|In the shower today I tried to think about the best advice I’d ever been given by another writer. There was something that someone said at my first Milford, about using style as a covering, but sooner or later you
would have to walk naked down the street, that was useful…
And then I remembered. It was Harlan Ellison about a decade ago.
He said, “Hey. Gaiman. What’s with the stubble? Every time I see you, you’re stubbly. What is it? Some kind of English fashion statement?”
“Well? Don’t they have razors in England for Chrissakes?”
“If you must know, I don’t like shaving because I have a really tough beard and sensitive skin. So by the time I’ve finished shaving I’ve usually scraped my face a bit. So I do it as little as possible.”
“Oh.” He paused. “I’ve got that too. What you do is, you rub your stubble with hair conditioner. Leave it a couple of minutes, then wash it off. Then shave normally. Makes it really easy to shave. No scraping.”
I tried it. It works like a charm. Best advice from a writer I’ve ever received.
Finally, perhaps the sagest, most succinct advice on writing you’ll ever encounter is set forth below. Gleaned from the writings of notable East Texas philosopher and word wrangler, Champion Joe Lansdale (you can find a slightly longer version in his Introduction titled “Livestock, Roses, and Stories” from FOR A FEW STORIES
MORE), the two tenets of his faith are set forth under the heading:
“LANSDALE’S GUIDE TO WRITING (Not Rules of Writing)”
1. Put your ass in a chair and write. (Okay. I lied. This one is a rule.)
2. Turn off the TV and read. All kinds of things. Not just what you want to write. (This one is also a rule.)”
I hope the two quotes above put everything in perspective. If not, get cracking on reading all those how-to books listed above.